The Shocking Truth About Organic vs Conventional Packaged Foods

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An estimated 2,000 synthetic chemicals can be used in conventional packaged foods; for organic the number is 40.

At this point most of us know that organic produce is grown without toxic pesticides. With that in mind, I always assumed that packaged organic food was basically the same as packaged conventional food, just made with organic ingredients.

Wow was I wrong. And while I always prefer fresh and whole foods to packaged ones, I now find that I have been nonetheless wildly underestimating organic packaged food (even if packaged food does come with packaging, which we also try to avoid as much as possible).

Here’s why, according to a new analysis by the consumer health watchdog, Environmental Working Group:

Unlike organic packaged foods, conventional packaged food contains thousands of poorly regulated food chemicals.

“Although many consumers choose organic to avoid toxic pesticides, few know that federal rules dramatically limit the use of synthetic substances in organic food,” says EWG nutritionist Dawn Undurraga, one of the authors of the report.

Here’s how it breaks down:

• 2,000+ chemical preservatives, colors and other chemicals are used in conventional packaged foods.

• Fewer than 40 synthetic ingredients are allowed in organic packaged foods.

And to top it all off, food manufacturers don’t need approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for many of the chemicals added to conventional packaged foods.

EWG explains that the things allowed for use in organic foods must be proven safe for consumption, and have no adverse impact on the environment. And they must be approved by government and independent experts every five years.

On the other hand, many of the chemicals added to conventional packaged foods have been linked to health problems; like sodium nitrate (potentially carcinogenic and bad for the heart) and butylated hydroxyanisole, which the National Institutes of Health lists as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

Many of these chemicals are deemed “safe” by chemical companies, the food manufacturers, or industry trade associations. In fact, experts estimate that through loopholes, around a third of the chemicals and other ingredients used in conventional packaged food have been approved for use by private parties, not the FDA. Unlike with organic packaged food, there is no requirement that the chemicals added to conventional packaged foods be periodically reviewed in light of new scientific research.

“Consumers rightly assume their food is safe,” says Melanie Benesh, EWG legislative attorney and report co-author. “But many food chemicals with connections to cancer and other serious health concerns have been deemed safe by chemical and food companies, not by the FDA.”

From the report:

Some “flavors” in conventional foods can actually be made up of more than 100 chemicals that do not have to be labeled on the package. The flavor may be made up of any of 2,700 other chemicals not regulated directly by the Food and Drug Administration but rather approved for use by an industry group, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association.5
By contrast, only flavors derived from natural, non-synthetic substances can be used in organic packaged food and, beginning in December 2019, natural flavors cannot be used if organic flavors are commercially available. In addition to being derived from natural sources, the flavors in organic food must be produced without synthetic chemicals and cannot include any artificial preservatives.

I recommend checking out the report at EWG, it has much more detailed information on specific additives and the damage they can do, both to the environment and personal health. When I think about the soaring rates of disease in this country, and then consider all the potentially harmful synthetic chemicals we are pouring directly into our bodies ... well, is it any wonder? We're trusting big food and chemical companies to ensure the safety of the food they sell us. We all know how well that worked with tobacco.

“The same companies that manufacture food chemicals are allowed to declare them safe,” says Benesh. “It’s like the fox guarding the hen house. For those consumers seeking ‘clean foods’ free from toxic chemical additives, organic is really your only option.”